The last summer of the w.., p.14
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       The Last Summer of the Water Strider, p.14

           Tim Lott
 
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  ‘Is that what upset you?’ said Strawberry. ‘The glass?’

  ‘No. I thought it was a message. A message for me,’ I said.

  ‘That you were guilty?’ said Strawberry.

  ‘What did you do?’ said Troy.

  ‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘I didn’t do anything at all.’

  The next day I woke early, still fragile from my experience with the ouija board. There was a bump on my head like a half-buried ping-pong ball. I couldn’t get back to sleep and I didn’t want to inconvenience Troy, after nearly breaking his table, by demanding a lift. More to the point, I didn’t want to wait for hours until they woke up – Strawberry had told me before she went to bed that she liked ‘very long lie-ins’. I decided to head back to Lexham on the bus. I could walk or hitch from there to the boat. I pulled on my clothes, which smelled of cigarette smoke and incense.

  Henry had told me there was a bus on the hour. I could make it if I dressed quickly. But I was overcome by the need to evacuate my bowels. By the time I had finished, I was cutting it fine. I hurried to the bus stop, half walking, half running. My head seemed to be expanding and contracting with every step, and each growth and diminution was accompanied by a diffuse flash of pain, like sheet lightning.

  As I arrived, I could see my bus receding. After half an hour waiting for the next one, I vomited into the gutter. With each convulsion, it felt like someone was taking a pile driver to my synapses. It wasn’t until eleven o’clock that the next bus arrived. The driver was heavy on the pedal. I made it back to Lexham shortly before noon.

  I was heading for the road home when I became aware of singing coming from the church, St Jude’s. I stood outside it for a while, just listening. I could hear the strains of ‘He Who Would Valiant Be’. The sun was already blistering the tarmac and my head was crammed with broken glass. I craved cool and shade. I made my way through the porch and into the transept. I sat uncertainly, but gratefully, on one of the pews that lined the nave. As far as I could make out, no one had noticed me.

  The hymn stopped. Wesley Toshack was in the pulpit. His skin tone had calmed down – it was now the colour of Mateus Rosé, the only wine I ever saw my father drink. Toshack owned his space like a prize fighter scoping out the ring. He began to deliver his sermon – some story set in Galilee and Judea, the point of which was lost on me. His voice, like his skin, had come down in tone. Although it carried easily, unamplified, throughout the space, it was measured and musical rather than the hectoring, brittle barrages of the day before.

  The interior of the church was simple, with wooden pews and a flagstone floor. The temperature was so much lower than the outside air, I found myself shivering as the sweat condensed on my skin. The congregation was larger than I expected – maybe fifty heads. From what I could tell from the florid, balding pates and spun-coconut-macaroon hats, most of them were middle-aged or elderly. A sprightly congregant was beginning the collection – a ragged purple cloth bag was being passed along the rows. In the third row I saw Ash, or at least the back of her head. I was close enough to notice a mole just between her left shoulder blade and her neck.

  The smell of seasoned wood and damp stone was in the air. Behind the altar there was a large stained-glass window showing Jesus suspended on the cross, with angels flitting rhapsodically in the middle distance. Although in this depiction nails clearly penetrated the Messiah’s hands and feet, he didn’t look as uncomfortable as you would expect. His expression suggested he was entirely at ease with his situation.

  It was peaceful, sitting there. As I watched the sunlight push through the glass panels of the Crucifixion, tattooing patches and puddles of light on to the floor, I felt some of the weight that had been on my shoulders begin to lift slightly. My hangover likewise seemed to lose some of its force.

  Toshack finished his sermon. There was another hymn, ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’, which seemed to stir the congregation into a bit of a lather, with voices waxing martial and keen. When it finished, he began offering communion. One by one the congregation rose to kneel and be fed wafers and wine. The acoustics were sharp – I could hear Toshack whispering, like a stuck record, ‘The body of Christ . . . the body of Christ.’

  Ash was queuing with the other congregants. I had an urge to take communion myself, to atone and be blessed, but it passed, to be replaced by an urgent need to get out of the building before either Ash or her father noticed me. I had a vision of some bodged and embarrassing attempt at my recruitment into the fold – by either Toshack or Ash herself. At the same time, I imagined that my otherness, even my surliness, was a factor in me seeming to have some purchase on Ash’s affections. I felt sure she wouldn’t let a member of the fold anywhere near that provocatively moulded, poured-liquid body, that beckoning red mouth; yet I sensed that there was a need in her to transgress. Sitting at the back of her father’s church wasn’t going to help my cause.

  I slipped out of the door, and took off around the town for half an hour. My hangover had miraculously lifted, so the minutes passed tediously rather than painfully. I bought a copy of the News of the World and a packet of cigarettes and sat down by the riverbank to smoke and read. But I found it hard to concentrate. Somehow the church – or the idea of the church – kept tugging at me.

  I cautiously made my way back towards St Jude’s. Neither voice nor music could be heard within. I edged into the building, and poked my head around the corner. It appeared to be deserted. I walked inside and sat in a pew at random, staring at the patches of sunlight. The feeling of peace I had experienced earlier returned.

  I sat there in complete silence for maybe ten minutes. At one point I closed my eyes and offered up a prayer – but not to God. I had a sense instead that some part of my mind might find a way of forgiving some other part.

  I found myself wondering about the church, and churches everywhere, and what they represented – what they really represented – and how there were thousands upon thousands of them, and how such effort and money had gone into them over nearly two millennia, all in the cause of a dream or a fantasy. Or was it a dream? Could so many people, some of them with brilliant minds, be so misguided?

  I was about to rise and leave when I heard a slight noise. I turned and Ash was there, a few yards behind me, standing perfectly still as if afraid of startling me. Seeing me turn, she smiled and came and sat down beside me.

  ‘This is a surprise.’

  ‘Don’t misunderstand,’ I said.

  ‘Meaning?’

  ‘I’ve hardly been into a church in my life. I’m not into this stuff. I just like the quiet. The quiet and the light.’

  ‘The light is special in here, isn’t it? Like being inside a kaleidoscope.’

  ‘I don’t like sermons.’

  ‘I get that.’

  She lapsed into silence. But the peace I had enjoyed previously had dissipated. Conversation of some kind felt obligatory.

  ‘You’re a believer?’ I said.

  ‘After a fashion. Can I ask you something? If you’re not a believer, why are you here?’

  ‘I already told you.’

  ‘Is there any more specific reason?’

  I shook my head. I sensed Ash’s gaze brushing my face like a searchlight.

  ‘I heard about your mother, Adam.’

  I turned and stared at her. She looked sad.

  ‘What do you know about my mother?’

  ‘Henry told me. Before my father and he fell out. Or rather, he told my father. So I knew someone was coming down to the boat. Someone who was troubled.’

  ‘What makes you think I’m troubled?’

  ‘Anyone who watches his own mother die is going to be affected. You must be very distressed.’

  I got up from the pew.

  ‘I just had a hangover and needed a bit of cool air. I have to go.’

  Ash reached out and touched the back of my hand. I recoiled.

  ‘Are you trying to recruit me?’

  ‘I’m trying to help. Don
’t you feel there’s a weight that needs lifting? Something beyond grief? Henry said that you might have . . . if you had known more . . . about what was wrong with her.’

  I took a step towards the door.

  ‘I’m sorry if I’ve offended you,’ said Ash, looking away. ‘Do you still want to meet on Tuesday?’

  ‘Sure.’

  ‘OK.’

  She looked up at me again, this time holding my gaze. She seemed to be asking me something, but I wasn’t sure what.

  ‘Look, Ash. I don’t mean to be mysterious. It’s just that I don’t know you. You’re just someone I keep bumping into.’

  ‘OK. I overstepped.’

  I looked up at the image of the hanging Christ. A long moment passed before I spoke again.

  ‘You want to know the truth?’

  ‘Only as much as you feel comfortable telling me.’

  I searched my mind for what the truth actually was.

  ‘I feel scared.’

  ‘Of what?’

  ‘I’m not sure.’

  ‘Are you afraid for your future?’

  ‘No. Not exactly. More of everything just . . . stopping. Now I know that it happens. Really, really happens. Lives ending. In the middle of breakfast. On an ordinary day. It makes everything seem so fragile. The whole living world, it . . . it’s disposable. Temporary.’

  Ash started playing with a small silver crucifix that hung round her neck on a slender chain.

  ‘My father says God—’

  ‘I don’t want to hear about God. And don’t tell me that Christians never die. Because they do. They just die in a cowardly way. They die not looking at things the way they are. Same as everyone else, filling their heads with shopping and sports and shuffling paper every day in an office. I can’t do that any more. I can’t sleep for thinking about it. Nothing cures it. It won’t go away. It won’t ever go away. Not unless you can make death go away. And you can’t, however much you pretend.’

  With that I left Ash behind me in the church, and walked out on to the pavement. I set off in the direction of the Ho Koji. As I walked, I could hear my footsteps echo in the air. Fading into nothing, and disappearing, each one, for ever.

  Fourteen

  It was Monday – the morning I had arranged to meet with Strawberry. I asked Henry if he wanted to join me, but he seemed unusally absorbed in that morning’s mail. He was making pencil marks on a letter he had just opened. I noticed the crest of the local council heading it. Without looking up, he vaguely replied that he might come and join us a bit later.

  Strawberry’s shack was no more than five minutes’ walk from the boat. There was no track leading to it – Henry had given me directions, but I got lost several times. I eventually found it in a clearing where a number of trees had been chopped down and the undergrowth cleared.

  Henry had been harsh describing it as a shed. Certainly, it was small, but much sturdier and larger than a shed – perhaps twenty feet square, constructed of raw-looking planks. It had a pitched green tar roof. There was a pole erected on the roof, and hanging from it, limp in the still air, was a flag decorated with the black and white symbol of yin and yang. A narrow metal chimney stood parallel to the flagpost at the opposite corner.

  There was a makeshift barbecue made out of old bricks and a rusty grill, along with a white-painted folding chair – now weathered into yellow – standing on the scrub outside. The shack had plastic-framed windows, which looked incongruous in such a rustic construction. There was no sign of curtains inside. There was an outhouse that I assumed held a toilet and perhaps a shower. From where I was standing, I couldn’t see the door, so I walked round to what I presumed was the front. The door, made of rough pine, was aerosol-painted with the inscription COME IN! and a red, blurry heart about the size of a real heart. There was no knocker or bell, so I rapped on the small window that was set in the door.

  The door swung open. Strawberry stood there, wearing a shapeless, billowing cream-coloured smock. Her feet were bare. She smiled and reached up – she was four or five inches shorter than me – to give me a kiss on the cheek.

  ‘I’m glad you came. Wondered where you’d gone when we got up yesterday.’

  ‘Took the bus. Didn’t want to hang around. Didn’t want to be a hassle for anyone.’

  ‘You wouldn’t have been. Having said that, we didn’t get up till the afternoon.’

  She beckoned me inside. I stepped across the threshold. The cabin was full of light. There was a smell of resin, and something like sour milk. I noticed an open carton of yoghurt standing by the sink, and presumed that was where the odour came from.

  The interior was rudimentary. A futon was on the floor, pushed up against the far wall, with a square of violently coloured Indian fabric on top. In the corner of the room there was a tiny kitchen area, and in front of that a couple of generously sized pillows. There was a trestle table with a some candles on it, a bookshelf and two tatty folding metal chairs. There were posters on the wall secured by drawing-pins – one an Escher print that she had presumably got from Troy. A tiny line of single type at the bottom identified it as ‘When Falls the Coliseum’.

  There were two more posters – one showing the phases of the moon, the other a Maxfield Parrish print of a modestly posed but naked pre-Raphaelite woman sitting with her legs pulled up to her chest on a rock, with the blue of the sea beneath her and the paler blue of the sky above. Other than a pine wardrobe, a chest of drawers, a pile of firewood, a wood-burning stove and her guitar, that was the whole thing.

  Strawberry sat down on one of the cushions and indicated for me to do the same.

  ‘What do you think of my crib?’

  ‘I like it.’

  I did, despite its rudimentary character and the nasty plastic windows. The light that came through the windows was dappled green. The shack was basic, even spartan, but held the space within it somehow very peacefully.

  ‘Not too fancy?’

  ‘Not so much. But it has a good air about it.’

  ‘I think so. It’s a place where you can just . . . sink into the moment. You know?’

  She started coughing, as usual. I could see her ribcage struggle under the fabric of her smock. After around ten seconds the fit passed.

  ‘Impurities are still coming out,’ she said. ‘It’s a tough diet regime I’m following. Here, take a look.’

  She picked up a dog-eared book from the table and passed it across to me. The words Zen and the Macrobiotic Way were written in a Japanese-calligraphy-style font.

  ‘My boyfriend in California, Jerzy, he turned me on to this. I say he was my boyfriend, but really we just hung around together for a while – he used to get the most terrible headaches. Plagued him for years. He found out about this diet. His healer told him about it. Three days on it – well, it was hard. It is hard. But the headaches went. They never came back. And he’d tried everything up until then. You know? So he stayed on the diet. Said he never felt better in his life.’

  ‘So what is it you’re trying to cure?’

  Strawberry looked at me as if I had asked a ridiculous question.

  ‘It’s not really about cure as such. It’s about balance. The yin and the yang, you know?’

  ‘Like the flag on the roof.’

  ‘Exactly. And purity. It takes quite a lot of willpower.’

  ‘Isn’t it possible that it’s making you ill?’

  ‘Oh no. That’s what Pattern says. I mean, I know it can look that way. To the untrained eye. But any good alternative practitioner will tell you: you’re going to feel worse before you feel better.’

  I noticed another book on the table. This one appeared to be about palm-reading. She followed my gaze, then pushed her cushion a bit closer to mine.

  ‘Would you like me to read yours?’

  ‘Are you any good at it?’

  ‘People say I’m very in tune with that sort of thing. Of course, it’s not a science. But science is bullshit anyway, right?’


  She beckoned for my hand. ‘Don’t be afraid.’

  ‘I’m not afraid. It just seems a bit silly.’

  I presented my left palm to her.

  ‘Not that one. The right hand.’

  ‘Why not the left?’

  ‘The left hand is what you’re born with. The right one is what you accumulate through life. For men, anyway. For women, it’s the other way around.’

  I gave her my right hand, and she rested it on her palm. I looked up at her and examined her face as she angled my palm slightly as if to get a better look. She appeared to be concentrating fiercely. The light came from behind her and gave her a blurry outline. It made her seem even more insubstantial.

  She studied the creases and wrinkles for thirty seconds or so. I savoured the intimacy of her running her fingers over my skin.

  ‘This crease is the life line.’

  ‘How long have I got?’

  ‘You’ll make old bones. Don’t worry about that. The line is substantial. But there’s a break right here. Early on. Not in childhood, but not long ago.’

  She showed me a wrinkle among what seemed to be a number of other random wrinkles.

  ‘I can’t see.’

  ‘Not that one. This one.’

  There was a line running along the top of my palm horizontally and a thick crease in the rough shape of a circle intersecting it about a fifth of the way up.

  ‘The circle means depression or unhappiness.’

  ‘I had a loss recently.’

  ‘Someone close?’

 
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